John Locke: Icon of Liberty

Mark Goldie traces the ways in which people across the political spectrum have used and abused the ideas of the philosopher who died 300 years ago this month.

The English do not celebrate their philosophers. In Paris there is a rue Descartes. In Edinburgh there is a statue of David Hume. But in England there is no public fanfare for John Locke (1623-1704), the tercentenary of whose death falls on October 28th this year. You will find his portrait in the National Portrait  Gallery, but demand is insufficient for a postcard to be on sale. Perhaps Locke would not have minded that accolades are conferred instead on his friend Isaac Newton. He modestly wrote in the preface to his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) that he was but an ‘under-labourer in clearing ground’ for such ‘master-builders’ in the ‘commonwealth of learning’ as Newton and Boyle.

Nor would Locke have wished his life to be remembered. He was indifferent to biography and reticent, even secretive, about himself. When the philosopher Damaris Masham wrote her memoir of him, she could not report his year of birth, though they had lived together for fourteen years from 1690. Like another of his friends, Sir Christopher Wren, whose epitaph in St Paul’s Cathedral invites us to ‘look around’, Locke’s epitaph at High Laver in Essex invites us to ‘learn from his writings’ rather than engage in ‘dubious eulogies’.

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